' ' Cinema Romantico: The Valet

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Valet

Back to last year we travel again and this time it's off to a different continent, in the form of French writer/director Francis Veber's comedy "The Valet". And again I ask myself, Why don't I watch more foreign comedies? And, Why can't America churn out comedies as good as "The Valet"? I'll return to those questions but I suppose it's important to get our bearings first.

Billionare CEO Pierre (Daniel Auteuil) is having an affair with supermodel Elena (the sublime Alice Taglioni, who brought to mind a young Julie Christie) but, alas, a member of the papparazzi has just snapped a photo of the two together on the street and it has turned up on the front page of the tabloids. Pierre's wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) sees this and Pierre offers the excuse that it is not he with Elena but the other man in the photo - the man whose face has been fuzzed out. Who is this other man, you ask? Mild-mannered valet Francois Pignon (Gad Elmaleh) who happened to be trudging past the secret couple right after his childhood friend and love of his life Emilie (Virginie Ledoyen) had sent his heart reeling by rejecting his marriage proposal.

Pierre and his lawyer, Foix, concoct a scheme in which Elena will quite literally live with Francois to give the illusion they are, in fact, dating. This will prevent Pierre from having to go through a nasty and all-together expensive divorce with his wife. But when the idea is pitched to Elena she agrees on one condition - Pierre divorce his wife one month after the charade has concluded, or he will pay her $20 million.

What follows can only best be described as hijinks.

How did I love "The Valet"? Let me count the ways. First, I dug the gallery of supporting characters. Pardon me for saying so but, look, I'm an American and so what we get served up here in our comedies tends to be the two major stars of the film while the supporting troops get the shaft. I'm not sure if this is to the feed the egos of the stars or because the studios are fearful audiences will doze off if people not featured regularly in People Magazine are off screen for more than 17 seconds but it's an epidemic. But in "The Valet" we get all the people mentioned plus more.

We get the inevitable nemesis of Francois - made so memorable, at least for me, because he's a cellphone salesman. Unless you're a Nazi or a Colorado Football Player it doesn't get more evil. We get the family doctor who always winds up having the patient he's come to check on check up on him instead. We get the friend, roommate and co-worker of Francois who has to live at home with his mother when Elena moves in. His mother is glimpsed only once but her one line is simply priceless.

Second, I adored how the many reversals of the film came from the characters and not from mechanics of the plot. No scenes are simply wacky misunderstandings. Yes, Pierre's wife arrives at the apartment of Francois to find that Elena really is there and, yes, the staff at the restaurant where Francois works is dumbfounded when Elena shows up to grant him a kiss but these scenes all have a reason for existing. And notice how the script makes use of the idiotic cellphone salesman. A lesser movie would have put Emilie into a relationship with someone for whom her character never in a million years would pine. Instead "The Valet" respects Emilie's intelligence.

That brings us to the third point. The movie not only respects Emilie's intelligence but the intelligence of all the characters who actually possess said trait. No one does something they would not do. We get the inevitable scenes of Francois and Elena together in his bed but they don't resort to cheap laughs. All right, I suppose we do receive one shot of Francois, uh, clutching her breast but he is asleep and thinks she is Emilie and Elena knows this and politely says so and Francois, too, is polite as he quickly removes his hand and rolls back over to his side of the bed.

I kept imagining how I would act if somehow I ended up in a similar situation with, say, Sienna Miller. Yeah, I'd be happy she was in my bed but out of respect I would totally sleep on the couch and absolutely bring her a blanket if she was cold and, going a little further, if she felt it necessary to drink all the liquor I had in the house, hey, no problem! Have at it! I'll buy some more!

But I'm getting away from the movie at hand and, damn, what an enjoyable movie this is. It won't change your life but if you're looking for a film that will make you genuinely laugh, that will genuinely charm you, that will bring a genuine smile to your face, friends, "The Valet" is the movie to rent.

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